NEW YORK—A statistical mismatch turned into an upset for the ages on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, when flabby Andy Ruiz, as high as a 25-1 underdog in some books, stopped unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in the seventh round, throwing the heavyweight division into disarray.
Gassed and glassy-eyed, Joshua rose from a second knockdown in the round, and his fourth of the fight, only to retreat to his corner and stretch his arms out along the top ropes. When referee Michael Griffin expected him to resume fighting, Joshua remained parked in the corner, giving Griffin no choice but to wave off the fight, as the capacity crowd roared and gasped alike.
“What can I say?” Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn said post-fight. “That was one of the greatest heavyweight shocks in history.”
It may not have been as earth-shattering a result as Buster Douglas’s knockout of Mike Tyson in 1990 in Tokyo, but Saturday’s shocker may rank up there with when Oliver McCall downed Lennox Lewis to win the WBC heavyweight title in 1994.
“What do you know, man,” Ruiz said sheepishly. “I’m the first Mexican heavyweight champion of the world.”
So much for a showdown between Joshua and Deontay Wilder.
To be sure, what happened on Saturday night was not a miscalculation. Hearn could have enlisted the top intelligence analysis firms to crunch numbers, and they all would have told him the same thing. Ruiz had no way to win. And, ultimately, it was that assurance which convinced Hearn to choose him as an opponent for Joshua’s American debut.
In other words, this was supposed to be a breeze.
All week long, Hearn was busy constructing the setting for the American coronation of his prized jewel. Ads for the fight could be seen emblazoned all around the city, from the rooftops of yellow cabs to the entrances of subway stations. Stretched across the arena’s south facade was a colossal image of “A. J.” in fighting pose, decked out in a form-fitting navy-blue suit for Hugo Boss. There was no label indicating who this man was, which is fine if it was in Charing Cross, but this is New York City, where Joshua could wade through Times Square unprovoked, so there was a slight note of arrogance. There was a lot of work to be done to build Joshua’s profile, sure, as his handlers admitted, but anonymity would not last long.
“Tuesday was absolutely packed (at a workout),” Hearn told Hannibal Boxing earlier in the week. “There were well over a thousand fans. It was mental. The American guys had never seen anything like it.” Some writers who were there disputed this, claiming that most of the attendees were either curious out-of-towners (“He’s a what? Heavyweight champion? Oh, he’s British?”) or associates belonging to one of the many commercial brands attached to Joshua. But Hearn was in no mood to entertain this. “Were you there? No? Ok, then.” Hearn was expecting upwards of six thousand spectators at the weigh-in alone. He was busy. “We’ve never had a weigh-in crowd of his size. Not even in the UK. Never.” By Saturday night, the Garden had become an outpost of the Commonwealth.
And yet none of this elaborate window dressing, in the end, helps anyone in the ring.
Was Ruiz, the pudgy twenty-nine-year-old native of Imperial Valley, California, considered a competent heavyweight coming into Saturday night? Without a doubt. Laziness and girth aside, Ruiz, 33-1 (22), knows how to fight: he throws punches in quick succession and possesses the muscle memory of someone who picked up the sport early on and not in his twenties like so many of this era’s heavyweights. Certainly, he was as good as anyone, outside of Luis Ortiz, to fill in as a late replacement for the Brooklyn-based Jarrell Miller, the other rotund heavyweight who nixed his shot at the division’s jackpot when he was caught with a variety of PEDS brimming in his blood. Still, few gave the Mexican-American a legitimate shot to dethrone Joshua, who is less an individual than an autonomous, self-serving industry, churning out everything from supplements and deodorant to Lucozade and Beats headphones. In a mid-town hotel earlier that Saturday afternoon, Allan Wartski, a Manhattan restaurateur who managed heavyweight contender Jameel McCline many years ago, laid out a series of charitable hypotheticals for Ruiz’s path to victory and eventually shot them all down. “But,” he noted, “I give Ruiz a chance to make Joshua look bad.”
As early as the opening round, Ruiz began to do just that, establishing himself as the aggressor and working patiently and methodically behind the jab. Joshua had some success jabbing to the body, but he appeared tentative tiptoeing around the ring. It made for a comical sight: the Adonic Joshua backpedaling, the smaller Ruiz pressing forward. As the rounds passed, what seemed like a tactical plan on Joshua’s part would look increasingly like indecision. It seems no longer a matter of speculation that the fight against Wladimir Klitschko has changed Joshua, has made him far more reticent and cerebral than he needs to be, considering his physical gifts.
Joshua, now 22-1 (21), broke out of his shell in a climactic third round, when he closed in on Ruiz and floored him with a left hook and uppercut. It was the first time Ruiz had tasted the canvas in his career. More surprised than hurt, Ruiz picked himself up, at which point, Joshua, a determined closer, connected with a flush right hand. Somehow Ruiz barely flinched, and he ate another slew of punches. Seconds later, as Joshua drove in once more for the kill, Ruiz landed a left hook and a clubbing right that dropped Joshua. It was the punch that opened up Joshua’s Pandora’s Box. Joshua would go down again at the end of the round.
“Just stick to the game plan,” Ruiz’s trainer Manny Robles recalled telling his charge after the round. “‘Don’t be overconfident. Keep your guard up.’ He knew that Joshua was hurt after that round. I told him just to keep working behind that jab, keep moving side to side, stay low, and don’t come up.”
Ruiz would end the fight in the seventh, scoring two more knockdowns in the process. Joshua had been defeated, beat down, and as he got up one last time in front of Griffin, he was no longer capable of defending his titles, the same ones he had so painstakingly wrested from Wladimir Klitschko two years ago. Increasingly, that victory looks to have come at a significant cost.
As for Ruiz, his upset of Joshua caps a remarkable turnaround of a career that had been suffering from managerial issues and, frankly, low ambition.
“We went through some issues,” Robles said. “(Ruiz) was complaining about running, about training, about me pushing him. But I know what it takes. There was no secret. It’s called hard work, dedication. Plus, he’s Mexican. I don’t know what it is about Mexicans, but it’s in their blood, in their genes.”
A rematch, which Joshua has said he will accept, would take place in London in the fall. But Ruiz’s achievement was not the result of a lucky punch, and that fact alone should give Joshua some pause. It was a systematic breakdown.
When McCall blitzed Lewis in 1994, he allowed his promoter Don King to regain a stake in the heavyweight game after losing his foothold when Buster Douglas upset Mike Tyson. A similar effect occurred on this night as well. Ruiz’s win essentially means that his influential manager Al Haymon, who presides over the PBC, now controls all four major belts in the division. The implications are consequential, given the fragmented landscape and the warring factions within it.
It was nearly 2 a.m., outside of the arena, near the loading dock, and a group of fans had assembled, waiting to catch a glimpse of the main event fighters. No one showed up. But they were in good company. For the past half-hour, they were being regaled by the ubiquitous Sam Watson, Haymon’s right-hand man. A sozzled, bleary-eyed Brit asked him to assess the scale of Ruiz’s victory. Watson threw his hands back. “This shakes up the whole world,” he crooned, shaking his head. “This shakes it all up.”